Monday 15 July 2013

So, another baptism ...

A sermon by Kim Fabricius, preached on the occasion of the baptism of Kim’s granddaughter (14 July 2013)
So, another baptism… I opened Bethel’s Register of Baptisms and counted. For me this is baptism number 45. All but two the baptisms of infants or small children. I mention this because I am not obliged to preside at the baptisms of infants. The United Reformed Church is a church that includes the tradition of believer’s baptism, and we have a conscience clause that states that while each and every local church must make infant baptism available, the church’s minister, for reasons of theological conviction, may choose not to baptise infants.

In fact, for me it was a close run thing. Right up until I left Oxford in 1982, just before I was ordained, it was not clear to me that infant baptism is theologically justifiable. Karl and Katie were born in 1978. Karl was not baptised; Katie was – but I wasn’t her dad then! Biblically, it is notoriously difficult to justify infant baptism. There are a few brief references to the baptism of “households” in the book of Acts, which may have included infants; in any case, scholars are agreed that believer’s baptism was undoubtedly the norm in the early church for over a hundred years.

And then there is the shambles that so-called paedobaptist churches have made of baptism: baptisms on request, done because it’s what you do (or what your parents want you to do), understood as a “naming ceremony” or “spiritual inoculation”, the rite privatised and performed on a Sunday afternoon as a “family occasion”, and for some just the starter before the main course, “wetting the baby’s head” in the pub – and the parents and child will never be seen in church again.

And people in the church, committed members, weekly worshippers, let’s face it, don’t we ourselves (as it were) water-down the rite, calling it a “christening” as if what we are doing is not a “proper” baptism? Don’t we rather sentimentalise the sacrament, preoccupied as we are with how cute the baby looks, what she is wearing, and how good – or how naughty – she is? What would you say to someone who asked you to explain the meaning and purpose of baptism? “I’m not quite sure, but I know a man who does” – and give them the minister’s phone number?

Still, despite all the arguments against it, I finally came around to saying “Yes” to infant baptism. Why? Grace. And grace again. Grace, grace, grace. God’s grace triumphs over human indiscipline, ingratitude, indifference – and a whole lot worse.

Here’s the deal. God is love – the eternal love of Father, Son, and Spirit – a dynamic, dancing, daring love that bubbles up and overflows – God just cannot contain himself – and cascades out in creation. In his love God creates a cosmos, seeds it with galaxies, illuminates it with stars, sprinkles it with planets, and populates one of them with wonderful creatures and, eventually, human beings. So far, so good. But what do we do? We screw up, that’s what we do; from little goofs to major mayhem, we screw up. As far back as the historical and archaeological record take us, we screw up. And we know this – this human brokenness – deep inside and from personal experience, we know that what we will and what we do, me as I am and me as I should be, they are never consistently aligned.

We don’t only screw up, of course. We get some things right. We make love, write poetry, play music, cure diseases, and create the game of baseball. But we also invent Marmite, Twitter, call centres, and The X Factor. And from the trivialisation of everyday life we work our way up to the tragic and the terrible. We practice the darks arts of mendacity, fear, hatred, and war, and with a toxic combination of insatiable consumption and technological genius, we are now painting ourselves into the corner of ecological meltdown. We take this beautiful blue planet, colonise it, plunder it, turn it into a killing field, and prepare it for extinction. Welcome to our world, little one.

But – yes! – grace! God’s grace speaks of life, not death. God hates death, hates it. And because God loves us, loves us unconditionally – I mean really unconditionally, so that whatever we do cannot make God love us any more or love us any less (can whatever your child does make you love him/her any more or any less?) – God will not leave us in death. We will all die, of course. I’ve got another 20 years if I’m lucky, but no one gets out of here alive. One day the earth itself will become a burnt-out cinder. But because God is love, all the way down, because God in his love is never reactive, always proactive, God will not leave it at that. God has big plans for creation. His work-in-progress is a new creation. And nothing less than that is what we proclaim today in this child’s baptism.

Be absolutely clear: today is not just some family occasion or domestic do. Baptism is an act of incorporation into the church, but it is more than that too. It is nothing less than a re-enactment of the death and resurrection of Christ, which itself marks the end of the world as we know it, the world that ends in death, and initiates a new world, a new kind of life at which the Bible gestures with the phrase “eternal life”, which suggests a quality of human flourishing which is our heart’s deepest desire and wildest dream. In baptism we participate in the death and resurrection of Christ himself. He dies, we die with him; he rises, we rise with him.

At this baptism – if we really had the eyes to see and the ears to hear – we would have heard mighty trumpets and angelic choirs and seen the sky roll up like a scroll. When the water rolled off her head, we would have clutched the pew in front of us, expecting the building to rock and roll. When the name of the Trinity was pronounced, we would have thought, “Here come the dead, rising from their graves, jumpin’ and hollerin’ and two-steppin’ into heaven!” When the kiss of peace was given, we would have seen all the world’s weapons of mass destruction melt into chocolate fudge brownie ice cream, the proud and the violent weep with shame, and the filthy rich throw bills from the balconies of their Caribbean villas and welcome the filthy poor to the mother of all barbecues. And when I cwtched this child up and down the aisle, we would have thought that every woman who has ever longed for motherhood would suddenly know that, miraculously, she was with child, and we would envision every child who has ever lived laughing and playing in the perfect park, and when the sun sets and it’s time to go home, they discover that their houses are made of gingerbread.*

So, another baptism – and another world.

At the end of the third book of C. S. Lewis’ Narnia chronicles, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when the children are sent back to their own world, Lucy protests:
“It isn’t Narnia, you know… It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”
“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.
“Are you – are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.
“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. That was the very reason you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”
Shortly we will go back to the world of Westminster, Wall Street, and Walmart, bewitched by the deities of power, wealth, and fame. But for an hour this Sunday morning here at Bethel, you have been brought by the celebration of Christian baptism into the Narnia of the kingdom of God, where a whole new world has been disclosed to you, a world which, unbeknownst to most folk, happens to be the real world. May you take this holy experience with you, recall it often, use it to get your head straight and your heart right, that touched by grace and knowing God here a little, you may know him there, even more and ever better.

*Regular readers of F&T will note, in this paragraph, my shameless plagiarising from Ben’s wonderful Letter to a Chinese student, baptised on Easter Sunday.

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